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You are here: Home Blogs Community Setting the right example: Say no to the Elf on the Shelf

Setting the right example: Say no to the Elf on the Shelf

by Dana Morgenstein Contributions Published on Dec 23, 2019 01:06 PM
Contributors: Greg Farough

Many if not most people have come to the conclusion that the song "Every Breath You Take" is creepy and inappropriate: Every step you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I'll be watching you isn't very reassuring, much less romantic. Yet for many years, we've been completely fine with kids learning that Santa Claus sees you when you're sleeping / He knows when you're awake / He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

As noted by writer Matt Beard in The Guardian, the latest iteration of teaching kids to accept constant surveillance via holiday tradition is the Elf on the Shelf, a cheerful little snitch whom parents hide in different spots every day in the house. The idea is, the Elf watches what kids are up to, and if they call their little sister a name or steal a cookie from the cookie jar, the friendly household spy will tattle to Santa, who will add them to the "naughty" list. Beware! We agree with Beard that this cutesy, innocent-seeming "tradition" (which actually only dates back to 2005!) communicates to children that someone is always watching them, and that moreover, this is a perfectly normal thing. This should give us pause, and cause us to think carefully about what kind of messages we are sending in our behavior at home and with friends.

This resonates with us not just because surveillance and privacy are obviously important free software issues, but because kids are little sponges who soak up our values from day one, and thus it's important to communicate clearly. This is why, although it's extraordinarily difficult to live in complete software freedom, we want to think about every concession to the proprietary world we make, and make sure that kids know that being forced to make those concessions is unfair. When we reject services that try to make us submit to Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to watch our favorite movies, then we should explain why it's bad; we can also endeavor to use the services in the Guide to DRM-Free Living instead, and explain why they're better. At the center of the free software philosophy is a fundamental respect for human dignity and individual rights, as well as our responsibility to our community, and no matter how much we might want to use a shortcut to get kids to behave well, ultimately it sends the message that stomping on their right to privacy is okay today -- and will be okay tomorrow when they're grown up, too.

Likewise, we want to communicate our values clearly to the other people in our lives. Because during the holidays many of us spend a lot of time with family, this is an important opportunity to talk about why we don't want the grownup equivalent of the Elf on the Shelf in our homes: "smart" devices like the Amazon Ring, the Google Home, and other items that grant us some useful capabilities while stealing away our right to privacy. It's quite possible that you're the kind of free software activist who is carefully stacking up small refusals to trade freedom for convenience (having trouble using WiFi on your phone or laptop because of proprietary software, or planning your travel carefully to avoid using proprietary ridesharing apps), and it's also quite likely that you're going to wind up spending some time this holiday in the home of someone whose "smart" devices will be spying on your conversations without your permission, and likely without your knowledge!

So this holiday, it's good to think about why free software matters, and communicate that to someone you care about -- whether it's your own child, or your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or circle of best friends. You can tell them about why you don't want an Amazon Echo or a Nintendo Switch, or any other user-hostile device, and explain why, and also explain why having that Echo in their own home is not only disrespecting their own rights, but yours as well. You can also use our Ethical Tech Giving Guide to select gifts that fit your family's needs. Even better, you could show your support of user freedom by giving as associate membership to the FSF in place of a physical gift to a friend or family member. Even if they have yet to hear about us, make sure your gift is one that respects their freedom, and by extension, the freedom of us all.

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